Friday, May 30, 2014

Who Will Be the Next "Face of Baseball"?

Last year, it was Mariano Rivera’s turn to have a “farewell tour,” with every opposing team essentially giving him a “day” in his last appearance in that ballpark. This year, it’s Derek Jeter’s turn.

This is not generally done. Cal Ripken got it in 2001, but Tony Gwynn didn’t. But even such legends as Hank Aaron (1976), Willie Mays (1973), Mickey Mantle (1968), Stan Musial (1963), Ted Williams (1960) and Joe DiMaggio (1951) didn’t get such honors.

This is mainly because an athlete usually doesn’t announce before a season that he’s playing only one more year. Indeed, Mantle didn’t announce it until spring training of the following year. But even when Lou Gehrig was forced to retire early in the 1939 season, he didn’t get such honors, except at Yankee Stadium.

In the cases of Jeter and Ripken, it’s because each, in his time, had essentially become “The Face of Baseball.” These were era-defining men who had announced beforehand that they were retiring.

It could be said that, for better and for worse, Pete Rose and Barry Bonds were each the Face of Baseball in their respective times, but neither ever really announced their retirements. Rose, by then a player-manager (the last one in the major leagues to date), just sort of stopped playing. Bonds, in contrast, didn’t have his contract renewed, and was essentially blackballed (if not outright banned), shut out of a game he could, through whatever chemical assistance, still play.

With Jeter gone, who becomes the Face of Baseball? If he had a serious competitor for that title these last few years, it’s been David Ortiz. He fits the role for positive reasons: He’s won, he’s got a winning personality, and he plays in a big market. (And, let’s face it, Big Papi’s slobbering acolytes on ESPN and Fox Sports make New England an even bigger market than it already is.)

He also fits the role for negative reasons: He used performance-enhancing drugs, lied about it, got caught, and still lies about it. If Jeter is (as far as we know) the symbol of “clean” baseball, Ortiz is the symbol of the dark side of baseball, 2003 to the present: We know the truth, but we choose to remain in denial.

Bonds’ fans, Sammy Sosa’s, and, to a lesser extent, Mark McGwire’s were more or less limited to their team’s metropolitan areas; because of the Boston club’s exposure, Ortiz is a national figure in a way that even McGwire was not, though Jeter is and Ripken was. And, of course, while Alex Rodriguez (regardless of whether he ever plays again) has his defenders, he’ll always have more haters, and with his personality, he’s done himself no favors in that regard.

To be “The Face of Baseball,” you need talent, results, a winning personality, and a big platform – i.e. either you play in a big market or, in spite of not doing so, ESPN and Fox Sports love you (as was the case with Ken Griffey Jr. while he was in Seattle). It also helps to be an everyday player: Pitchers just don’t generate the kind of admiration that big sluggers do. After all, as great as Greg Maddux was, he was never as popular as Ripken, Jeter or Ortiz; even in Atlanta, he wasn’t as popular as Chipper Jones. In other words, sorry, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Masahiro Tanaka, but you’re not eligible.

Here are my top five candidates for Face of Baseball, late 2010s edition:
 
5. David Wright, New York Mets. He has the market. He seems to be a nice guy. He seems to be clean. He is, along with Darryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza, one of the three best offensive players the Mets have ever had. What he doesn’t have is the results: He was one run away from a pennant in 2006, but that’s his only trip to the postseason so far.
 
The Mets, desperate for fans as the Yankees dominate the market (one source even showed the Yankees more popular even in the Mets’ home Borough of Queens), are unlikely to let him go to a contender; so unless the Mets can get it together sometime in the next seven years, he may never play in a World Series. But unless Yangervis Solarte really builds on his good start to capture Yankee fans’ imagination, Wright will, at least, be the biggest baseball star in the New York Tri-State Area for a while. (If Solarte does build on it, soon, Wright won’t even be the best third baseman in New York.)

4. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers. Market? Check. Nice? Check. Clean? Check, we think. Postseason success? Not yet. And he has not fully come back from his injury a year ago.
 
He does have the advantage over his teammate Yasiel Puig in that he’s an English-speaker in an English-speaking country. If Roberto Clemente were still alive, you could ask him how difficult it is to be a baseball icon whose first language is not English.
 
3. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Nice? Check. Clean? Check, we think. Market? Sort of: The Angels can change their name to whatever they want, they’ll still be second in Southern California behind the Dodgers. Postseason success? Not yet, but the Angels are well-positioned for that.
 
At 22 the youngest of these candidates, Trout might be in the best position to be the Face of Baseball in the long term.

2. Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox. Market? Check. Nice? People who aren’t Yankee fans think so. Clean? As far as we know. Postseason success? Yes. And he’s only 30, so, barring a medical or ethical calamity, he will replace Ortiz as the “face” of the Red Sox.

1. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Market? Check, sort of; having played for the St. Louis Cardinals, who have inflated their “market,” raised his profile. Nice? Apparently, although some in the Cardinal organization have suggested otherwise. Clean? We think so. Postseason success? Two rings in seven appearances.

Presuming A-Rod is done, Phat Albert is the active leader in home runs, with 506 to Adam Dunn’s second-place 448. That’s a huge plus. While he had an off-year (by his standards) last year, he’s hitting again this season. And he’s only 34, so he should have a few more good years left.

The fact that Pujols has veteran status and isn’t “baseball old” puts him in a great position to be the kind of player who gets honored with a farewell tour. If he helps the Angels win a World Series, it’s almost assured that he’ll be considered The Face of Baseball after that.

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